Economic Statecraft
No More Triad? Prospects for Relations Between the Republic of Korea and Japan

Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea occupy an important place in the regional security complex of East Asia. Meanwhile, the fact that both countries have agreements with the United States guaranteeing their military security does not make these neighbours real allies. Bilateral contacts are invariably accompanied by the issues each side has with the other. Probably, the normalisation of ties would be possible with the direct participation of Washington. However, the real priorities of the Americans rarely take into account the interests of the states of Northeast Asia and are definitely not aimed at increasing the level of security in the region.

Reluctant friends

During the Cold War, the main thing that united Tokyo and Seoul was the confrontation against the communist threat, but in the era of the disputed number of poles that followed, the number of reasons for friendship rapidly dwindled. Instead of a "strategic triangle" in the sphere of security for about 30 years there were rather two dyads of relations: the US-South Korea relationship and the US-Japan relationship. In addition to historical memory, this was facilitated by the different interpretation of the military threats that exist in the region. Thus, the Koreans are trying to refrain from anti-Chinese and anti-Russian rhetoric, rightly assuming that Moscow and Beijing have no aggressive plans towards the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese are moving further and further away from the principle of good neighbourliness, laid down in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956 and the Sino-Japanese Joint Communiqué of 1972.

In May 2021, negotiations between the heads of diplomacy of the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan were held on the sidelines of the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in London. Later representatives of Seoul and Tokyo spoke in a bilateral format. The parties noted the need to develop relations and agreed on cooperation on the North Korean issue.

Later, there were also tripartite consultations between the heads of their intelligence agencies. However, practical steps towards rapprochement are difficult to assess unambiguously. On the one hand, the Koreans dropped a number of lawsuits  against the government of Japan demanding compensation for victims of forced labour mobilisation and sexual exploitation. On the other hand, they sharply condemned the decision of the Japanese to resume the discharge of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean, and also protested against the presence of the Liancourt Islands (Tokto/Takeshima) on the official map of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. In turn, Japanese companies maintain restrictions on the supply of raw materials and materials for the production of semiconductors to South Korea.

Interestingly, in July 2021, CSIS experts presented arguments both “for” and “against" Washington's interference in the settlement of Japanese-Korean differences, but agreed that the state of bilateral relations does not give much cause for optimism. The experience of interaction between Tokyo and Seoul in support of American forces during the Vietnam War, fortunately, is not applicable in modern conditions.

South Korea and Japan: An Alliance Without Friendship
Kazushige Kobayashi
The bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been a marriage of convenience, plagued by a perpetual deficit of trust and respect on both sides. Despite the fact that both nations are considered America’s primary allies in Asia-Pacific, they struggle to even agree on the name of the sea between them.
Expert Opinions



Missile Dimension

There is an opinion in the expert community that since the issues of historical heritage and the territorial dispute cannot be resolved yet, Seoul and Tokyo can actively cooperate through Washington to strengthen confidence-building measures and prevent rivalry in the military sphere. However, the assessment and ranking of security threats by American allies differ significantly.

Japan's Five Year Plan in the defence sector, released in December 2022, provides for the allocation of about $ 320 billion for the development and acquisition of weapons, in order to give the Self-Defence Forces new capabilities as part of their modernisation and re-equipping. One of the most impressive innovations is long-range sea, air and land-based missiles. At the same time, it is emphasised that a blow with such weapons can be delivered, including on the territory of a foreign state, as a preventive response to preparations for an attack on Japan. This is Tokyo's first significant move away from a purely defensive strategy as part of a course towards a broad interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution.

After the United States lifted restrictions on the development of missile technologies in 2021, Seoul announced its intention to create a number of strike and defensive systems by 2026. The main declared goal is the effective containment of the DPRK. Representatives of the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Korea prioritized the creation of ground-based and sea-based hypersonic and ballistic missiles with a range of over 800 km with the possibility of hitting protected and buried targets.

Dialogue with the Japanese side on the direction of military development is possible in principle under the 1998 Joint Declaration. At that time, President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi agreed to develop "balanced cooperative relations", including in the field of security. However, Seoul clearly opposes possible Japanese strikes on targets in the DPRK, as formally it would be an attack on the territory, which, although under the control of the communist regime, belongs to the Korean people. Yoon Sok-yeol's administration insists on the need for approval from the leadership of the ROK of any actions of other states against the DPRK, while in Tokyo they are confident that the necessary self-defence argument is sufficient. Although the South considers the North its main military threat, it still hasn’t lost hope for the restoration of dialogue and the development of cooperation in the future. For Washington and Tokyo, Pyongyang is of no value in terms of partnership, and therefore the threshold for making a decision on conducting a military operation for these countries is much lower.

Indo-Pacific does not mean an anti-Chinese project

In December 2022, the Government of the Republic of Korea published the "Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region". The document notes the growing US-Chinese rivalry, but is mainly focused on finding a balance in relations with the main military ally, Washington, and the leading economic partner, Beijing. It is noteworthy that the South Korean leadership, despite the emphasis on deepening cooperation with the United States proclaimed at the ROK-ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in November 2022, refrains from anti-Chinese rhetoric in every possible way. The PRC is named in the Strategy as a leading partner with which there are common interests implemented on the principles of mutual respect in accordance with international norms.

It is interesting that the text practically goes without discussing the DPRK, except for mentioning the obvious need for a joint solution to the problem of nuclear proliferation. This probably indicates that for Seoul, inter-Korean relations do not need a broad international discussion and are not on the agenda for the APR. In addition, the South Korean leadership does not pay attention to the AUKUS format, concentrating more on the Quadripartite Security Dialogue (QUAD), especially in the field of information exchange on maritime activities (Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness). Seoul notes the need for a diplomatic solution to existing problems in the APR. In particular, the Koreans express their readiness to make a feasible contribution to the peaceful settlement of the dispute between some ASEAN countries and China regarding the ownership of part of the South China Sea, as well as the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Archipelago.

Tokyo takes a more belligerent stance. Thus, in the National Security Strategy of 2022, attention is paid to the threats posed, in the opinion of the Japanese leadership, by the activities of China, North Korea and Russia. The main means of counteraction are the strengthening of the alliance with the United States, the development of relations with "like-minded people" and the restructuring of the architecture for ensuring the country's military security.

Japanese approaches to the "free and open APR" are largely built around the American strategy. Business aspirations to restore trade, economic and investment ties with China after the COVID-19 pandemic do not find understanding from the country's leadership. Of greatest concern is Tokyo's inexplicably growing desire to defend the island of Taiwan, against the protests of Beijing. Probably, Japanese strategists should remember the legacy of Alfred Mahan, who called on the US to make allies clash with competitors and cause the most damage, preferably on both sides.

In the context of significant differences between the positions of Japan and the Republic of Korea, interaction between these countries is potentially possible with the direct participation and mediation of Washington. The development of a tripartite protocol on countering security threats cannot be ruled out. However, in the United States, apparently, they are betting on the militarisation of the Land of the Rising Sun in their own interests, without thinking too much about how this is perceived in the region, where they have already encountered the Yamato spirit so cherished by the West.

The Deterioration of Relations Between Japan and South Korea and Security in Northeast Asia
Yuichi Hosoya
The South Korean government does not understand that the American military commitment in East Asia cannot work effectively without security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, even if the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo continues to be tense.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.